How did a 103-year-old woman in the rural Filipino mountains become one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world? We travel north to Kalinga to meet the ButBut tribe—and discovers an ancient tradition indelibly inked into our culture

Whang-Od walks past her tomb every day when she leaves the house. Dug out into the damp ground, the 103-year-old admits that she often forgets it’s there altogether. Rumour has it, the village children don’t realise its purpose and sometimes use it for hide and seek. Only her teenage grand-nieces treat it with trepidation. “Sometimes when I see it, I have to look the other way,” says Elayang, 18, who shares her elderly relative’s wicked sense of humour, her warm and quiet smile, and ink-stained fingertips. “My Apo is the strongest, bravest woman I’ve ever known. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be just like her. It’s like she’s the foundation of our whole community. We all know that when she dies, everything will change.”

Elayang isn’t exaggerating. The oldest tattoo artist in the world, and the first female tattoo artist in the Philippines, Whang-Od isn’t so much an inspiration as an institution—as much a part of the ButBut tribe’s culture and history as the ancient Kalinga mountainside they call home.

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Above Whang-Od, 98, is often described as the last mambabatok

Indeed, every week, an average of 300 urban visitors make the 19-hour pilgrimage from Manila to Buscalan to pay 500 pesos and plead with the wrinkled matriarch to dip a thorn into a thick black paste of cooking soot and permanently sign their skin. Beads of blood bubble as she hammers its point with a wand of bamboo and pierce virgin epidermis to form wavy, uneven lines of teeny tiny dots.

It’s an exercise in both pain management and lung capacity. A nauseatingly serpentine ascent by coach is punctuated with a vertiginously steep hour’s long hike through wet rice paddies, sending day trippers’ flip-flopped feet slipping on the worn down stepping stones as one of the tribe’s 76 gazelle-like local guides waits patiently ahead. There’s no phone signal for smartphones, wifi doesn’t exist, and villagers communicate across the hillside via antennae-d walkie-talkies. “We know we live in a different era from Manila and Cebu or countries like England and America,” says resident Richard Weber, who was born and raised in the village in the 1970s. “I think it says a lot about Whang-Od if this many people have heard about her, even though we’re this cut off.”

Indeed, with white hair tied back in a black “tribal streetwear” headscarf and solid silver earrings shaped to mimic the female reproductive system, Whang-Od may be less than five feet tall, but her reputation carries weight. Filipino tourists travel from as far afield as Mindanao and Palawan to meet the most famous nonagenarian in South East Asia, and international backpackers clutching British and Brazilian passports spend thousands of dollars as they structure whole holidays around their quest for tribal ink.

“I’ve been wanting to come here for about three years,” says Daniel, 30, from France, as he sits on a smooth bamboo bench outside one of the village’s seven makeshift tattoo studios. “I first read about Whang-Od and her tattoos on a travel blog, and then I started to see more and more posts about the village on social media, and I thought ‘Man, I must visit this place.’” He already has a couple of other inkings, which he got in Paris and Toulouse. “But I almost wish I’d waited for this to be my first. I love how much meaning is ascribed to each symbol, and the opportunity to meet Whang-Od is incredibly cool. She’s even older than my gran.” He began queuing for this particular tattoo at 7am, and it takes eight hours before he’s finally seen, by which point he’s given up trying to choose his own design from the 20 emblems available. Whang-Od doesn’t mind—she prefers choosing for her customers anyway—and quickly identifies a diamond shaped crab, representing travel and adventure. “I love it,” Daniel says later, admiring his swollen bicep. “It hurts like hell, but it’s so cool.”

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Above Today there are more or less 20 different traditional designs on offer

Whang-Od laughs at the audible awe of her customers, who frequently stutter in her presence and occasionally even burst into tears when they realise she’ll be completing their tattoos. “I’m no different from any of the other women in our village,” she says, declining all offers of a chair in favour of squatting on the floor, arms wrapped neat around her knees; gold sequined ballet pumps pointed forwards to catch the light. “I just have a slightly different job. And I’ve lived a little longer than most of them.”

A little longer than all of them, in fact. Whang-Od isn’t the oldest resident of the village—that accolade belongs to a 110-year-old blacksmith round the corner, who continues to spend his days sharpening blades hammered by his sons and grandsons. Both he and Whang-Od own certificates proving their birth dates, although there’s some dispute over whether or not they may have been registered a year or two late. But over the course of the 103 years since she started working, Whang-Od appears to have changed the course of Buscalan’s future.

“I didn’t plan to do this when I grew up,” she explains. “When I was little, girls only had the option of becoming housewives. But my uncle and father were the tribe’s tattoo artists, and when they became too old, they asked me to take over so that we could still afford to buy rice.” She was 15 years old at the time, and had already been out of school for three years because of local conflicts. “My family didn’t have any money for food or clothes or education,” she remembers. “People come to our village now and look around and think, ‘oh, they must be very poor,’ but they have no idea. We may still live a simple life, but we can eat three meals a day now. Before, we struggled to eat one.”

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Above Tattoo artist Emily Oggay, 24 years old

The tattoos originally represented warfare and beauty. Men were inked after completing their first kill, while women covered their bodies with snakeskin and fertility symbols upon reaching puberty. They weren’t intended as a tourist attraction. “That happened by mistake,” explains Weber. “Every year a few trekkers would stumble across the village and see our tattoos, so word got out very gradually. In 2008, a documentary maker called the ‘Tattoo Hunter’ turned up, and asked to film Whang-Od. After that, everything seemed to change overnight.” Whang-Od nods. “Every design has a meaning,” she says. “They protect us, and make us more powerful in our own skin. When visitors arrived and said they wanted to pay me to tattoo their skin too, I thought, ‘OK, you are not a ButBut, but why shouldn’t you be powerful and protected too?’”

It’s not cultural appropriation, she argues; rather a exchange of tattooing traditions that has even seen artists from Australia and Singapore make the trip to photograph their electromagnetic rotary machines next to Whang-Od’s Tupperware box of dried thorns and bamboo sticks. Several of the younger girls in the village have Westernised tattoos on their ankles and thighs, and one modern design—depicting a heartbeat morphing into a heart and a cross—has proved so popular within the community that it’s now offered on the official menu. “I don’t like that one so much,” says Whang-Od. “But if that’s what the visitors want then it’s good that they can get it.” She directs those requests to Elayang and her sister, Grace, 25, who sit quietly behind her from sunrise until sunset, imitating her technique and illustrating those their great-aunt doesn’t have time to see.

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Above Tattoo artist Claire Sagmayao, 18 years old

“I don’t have any children of my own, so I invest my earnings and my time on my great nieces,” Whang-Od explains, adding that she refers to both of them as her granddaughters, just as they call her their grandma. “I know I won’t be able to do this for much longer. My back hurts when I sit all day, and when the sun goes down it is getting harder and harder to see. So it is very important to me that they continue my work and they continue to make Buscalan successful even when I am gone.” In the meantime, she has busied herself with community development—spending her savings on building weatherproof concrete houses in place of traditional corrugated tin huts, speaking up in village meetings to ensure the women are represented, and even bringing the first washing machine up the mountain to take pride of place next to her bed. “We needed four men to carry it,” she says proudly. “It was very heavy.”

“We don’t know how long we have left with Apo,” says Elayang, slowly. “I don’t want to think about that unless I have to. But in the meantime I just want to spend every second with her, asking questions and listening to everything she has to say. She has changed everything for our village. I hope she knows how grateful we are for that.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: On 27 February 2018, the Philippine Senate adopted the resolution filed by Senators Sonny Angara and Nancy Binay to award the title Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan or National Living Treasure to the renowned tribal tattoo artist Whang-Od of Kalinga. She is now 103 years old—possibly older—and is said to have inked over 20,000 people from across the world.

Photography: Francesco Brembat | This story was first published in the April 2018 issue of Philippine Tatler, available in all leading newsstands and bookstores, and downloadable via Magzter, Zinio, and Pressreader.

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